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Using drugs and gels to bypass the blood brain barrier

Fast facts

  • Official title: Overcoming the blood- brain barrier: supramolecular hydrogels for combination drug delivery in GBM resection cavities
  • Lead researcher: Professor Colin Watts
  • Where: University of Birmingham and The University of Cambridge
  • When: May 2017 – February 2020
  • Cost: £100,000
  • Research type: Adult, Glioblastoma (High Grade), Academic, Drug delivery
  • Grant round: New Ideas

Dr Colin Watts and the collaborative team at the University of Cambridge and the University of Birmingham are testing drug-containing gels as a new delivery method for the treatment of high grade brain tumours.

Glioblastoma (GBM) has proven to be extraordinarily difficult to defeat. After diagnosis, the first treatment is surgery (also known as resection) to remove as much of the tumour as possible. This is usually followed by a combination of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. The problem is that some tumour cells are surrounded by healthy brain and it’s not safe to remove them.

Chemotherapy would be a good way to attack these residual cells, if we could get it past the blood–brain barrier (BBB).

What is it?

This research aims to completely bypass the BBB by delivering drugs using gels that the surgeon will put into the space left when the tumour is removed, as shown in our animation on this page.
This kind of chemotherapy is known as a local treatment because it’s so close to the residual (leftover) tumour cells.
The two-year project has two aims:

  1. To grow cells from different parts of an individual’s tumour and use them to assess how well different gels release drugs.
  2. To put the best drug-loaded gels into complex lab models to observe a) how the brain may respond to them and b) any adverse effects.

To date:

The gels that the researchers are using have been improved so that they closely match the density of healthy brain. This means that the gel shouldn’t cause adverse effects by being too hard or soft when in contact with the surgical space.

Additionally, the gels have been tested in some of the team’s complex models and didn’t have any adverse effects.
The team’s ongoing work is loading combination therapies into the gels and measuring how well the gels act as a delivery system.
We hope that after this grant the team will have a substantial body of evidence allowing them to test the gels in more complex systems and add new drug combinations.

Why is it important?

Glioblastomas are the most common aggressive (high grade) primary brain tumour in adults. The fast-growing nature of the tumour cells means that any that are left behind after surgery could grow into a new GBM, and unfortunately this often happens.

Research into local treatments could help eliminate the residual cancer cells, with less of the debilitating side-effects that can occur with current (systemic) chemotherapy.

Who will it help?

This research gives hope to people who are diagnosed with a GBM in the future. This research strives to completely eliminate GBM cells, and free people from the threat of recurrence.



The gels have been improved to mimic human brain texture and density.
Additionally, the gels have been shown to do no damage to the brain by themselves.


Loading drugs into the gels and assessing how well they are released into the surrounding area.

    If you have any questions about this, or our other research projects, please contact us on research@thebraintumourcharity.org

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    Take a look at our animation on how the blood-brain barrier works, and how Professor Watts’ gels could be used.